Tuesday on her blog Art of Holiness, Dr. Carolyn Moore wrote a blog named “Building Bridges” which focus on how we as Christians can respond in the midst of the racial tensions in the wake of the injustice for so many African Americans. There was a statement that really rung out to me in the midst of what she shared: “Tolerance is not a biblical value.” Now, if you were to hear this statement made a couple decades ago, you might have heard it against the backdrop of “we need to take a stand against sin. No tolerance.” However, Dr. Moore was making a very different point to describe the way the relationship between black and white people is built around tolerance that is not strong enough to hold people together when a traumatic event occurs. Tolerance may keep us civil, but tolerance does not bind us together.
The idea of tolerance was written by the English philosopher John Locke in 1689 during Catholic-Protestant tensions in England, during the period of the 16-18th century when religious wars between Protestants and Catholic routinely broke out. In that letter, Locke puts forward tolerance as a way that Christians can respond to differing forms of Christian worship. Believing that attempt religious conformity was a great cause of social conflict, he proposed that it is in the best interest of governments to tolerate different Christian denominations.
In this context, tolerance could be understood as a correction to religious war and oppression. In modern language, we might suggest it is a form of curbing the excess of power to control and dominate. To that end, there is something I would expect most people could value in tolerance as a political policy. Tolerance as a limitation of political power is the ultimately political basis for various rights in American society such as the freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press.
However, Locke considered tolerance as more than a political policy, but as a Christian virtue: “I esteem that toleration to be the chief characteristic mark of the true Church.” In so doing, Locke defines the Church along the axis of an ethical idea, rather than the embodiment of the righteousness that we see in Christ. This notion of tolerance have since gone on to define many of the religious institutions, including my own United Methodist church.
Here is the value of tolerance. Tolerance is what keeps people from going at each other. And yet, here is the problem of tolerance: it doesn’t address the very reasons we hold grudges and are tempted to devalue each other. Tolerance maintains peace in the face of conflict, but a broken “peace,” often with hidden grudges, wounds, and hurts, especially by those who do not feel they have control but withhold expression in the name of “peace.” Meanwhile, those who do not have to live with the consequence of unaddressed injustices and harms feel that this toleration is such a wonderful thing, where everyone has been held together.
Is it any wonder, then, that when either a trauma exposes the broken “peace” that tolerance has built or a perceived, symbolic threat to this “peace” is recognized, it leads to massive outswells of anger in its various forms? Tolerance is good at keeping people working together insofar as there are not any systemic injustices or emotionally significant forms of disagreement. But, tolerance built through emotional avoidance of the tough stuff also masks. It covers. It keeps shrouded in secrecy. When tolerance is the first resort to dealing with deeply angering and troubling issues, it can readily become a way of masking the truth because it simply treats our words as different opinions and does not really address the substance.
So what then is the Christian response to tolerance? Do we simply abandon the idea? No, but in the words of Paul in 2 Corinthians 10:5, we can take the thought of “tolerance” captive to make it obedient to Christ. We can find the good that tolerance does bring, while seeking, at the same time, to try to correct tolerance for the future so that it does not continue to lead to pervasive social injustice as witness in the brutal treatment of African Americans or widespread dysfunction, such as the way United Methodists treat each other in our deep theological divisions.
What exactly is the alternative? There is no single words or ideal that can become the Christian alternative for tolerance. Christ is the alternative, but we find in Christ one who is merciful, one who forgives, one who is humble and yet also one who speaks truth, one who warns of judgment, and one who prefers to save the one over the ninety-nine. The Christian alternative to tolerance is growing to embody Christ’s righteousness through the Spirit who guides us to put to death the deeds of the flesh, including our own penchant to needless, conflict-oriented behaviors.